Snoozepaper

Striving for mediocrity at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Disbelief was filtering around the newsroom at the prospect that, in reaction to one phone call from an irate power broker, Connor would yank a story from the paper.

Price says it simply did not happen that way. She says Cutbirth should never have made a "deal" with Earle to get an interview. The Hutchison profile was to run when she said it was ready to run, and no sooner. "Unbeknownst to me, a reporter who is no longer here had made some promises to some sources and had tried to say some stories were going to run," Price says. "They weren't scheduled to run. Nobody schedules stories to run other than me."

Price says she read the Hutchison profile before she left for an out-of-state meeting, and found it unfit for publication. Besides, she says, in order to gain access to Hutchison, the second reporter had promised that the profile would run later, before the March primary election but after the February trial. Running the Hutchison profile before the trial, Price says, would have put the paper in a position of "lying" to the senator. "That's absolutely misrepresenting what you set out to do," Price says.

While she was out of town, Price charges, Jones and Cutbirth tried to sneak the profile into the paper as part of their inappropriate "deal" with Earle. "The reporter on the Earle story and the editor on the Earle story had done some wheeling and dealing that they shouldn't have done, basically, and had tried to wheedle this thing into the paper behind my back, under my nose, when I was out of town," Price says. "All this sort of blew up in their faces. I found out about it. I said 'No, the profile is not going.'"

Price characterizes the whole situation as a fiasco that had nothing to do with phone calls to Connor. "Promises absolutely should not be made to sources on things like this," she says. "I found out about it after the fact, and basically had to come in and clean up what could have been a very embarrassing situation for the paper."

The Hutchison trial ended up not being a trial. After a jury was selected, the judge refused to allow Earle to use evidence that the prosecutor felt was pivotal to his case. Earle attempted to drop the charges, intending to file them later, but the judge instead ordered Hutchison's acquittal.

Within hours of triumphing at what could have been a career-ending criminal trial, Hutchison visited, of all places, the Star-Telegram. She was spotted--on the second floor, leaving the publisher's suite with at least two of her staffers--by a newspaper employee who still wonders why, "on a day when she was national news, she would be walking through the bowels of the Star-Telegram."

After the aborted trial, Cutbirth says an editor "called me into his office and told me that my job was in jeopardy." Shortly thereafter, Cutbirth left the paper. He is now an aide to Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro.

In November 1994, Cutbirth won a Katie award for his coverage of Hutchison's acquittal. His story was selected over The Dallas Morning News' coverage of her indictment, an irony that was not lost on Cutbirth: He fell out of favor for supposedly scheming to make the senator look bad, but his good-news story about her triumph beat out the News' bad-news story about her indictment.

The Hutchison fiasco sealed Price's reputation in the eyes of many newsroom staffers. "The perception was that Rich Connor was really running the newsroom, and that he had very influential friends," says a former editor. Price "was doing what Rich wanted her to do in terms of not only how the newspaper was run, but what stories got into the paper and what they said."

At about the same time, another story was simmering that gave rise to further questions about Price's motives.

Barry Bailey was the respected senior minister of First United Methodist Church, where many of Fort Worth's most prominent citizens worship. The paper had been receiving tips that Bailey was being accused of sexually harassing church employees. At least one of the women had retained a lawyer and lodged a complaint with church leaders.

Tim Madigan, one of the paper's most respected reporters, was trying to dig into the story. (Madigan, now a feature writer at the paper, declined to be interviewed.) As the scandal developed in bits and pieces, according to several editorial employees who watched the saga unfold, Madigan was repeatedly frustrated in efforts to get the news into the paper.

Many felt that Price, a member of the church, was "filibustering" the story to death. "Debbie would sit in meetings and kept asking, 'What's the real story here? Is this church politics?'" says one source. "Madigan's position was, 'Maybe the real story is that these people are telling the truth. How about that?'"

Aware that Price belonged to the church, and that Connor was a social acquaintance of Bailey's, reporters and editors began to suspect the motives for holding the Bailey story. "The story was proceeding with extraordinary caution, at the very least," says one veteran reporter. "I mean, [they] were treating this person differently."

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